So, yeah. I’m working on a YA novel. I’m still an academic. And I’m probably a better one for it.
February 4, 2011
I’ve been working on a novel for a while now, and I’m nearing the end of a solid (though flawed) first draft. But in my academic and public life, I haven’t told that many people about it. In fact, I only mentioned it on Twitter a few days ago, and I still feel reluctance at claiming the fiction-writer status, since I’m unpublished. Mostly, though, I’ve been afraid to “come out” as a fiction writer because I’m an academic.
I was afraid that being open about writing fiction would hurt my chances on the job market. (Silly me! I should’ve known that being a feminist pop music scholar was enough of a barrier toward getting a tenure-track job!) Academic employers could see my blog and say, “Well, if she’s working on this fiction thing, will she be able to keep up a steady stream of publications toward tenure? Won’t she be distracted?” The only way to counter that is to point to my record of publication, which continues to grow, and to note that I’ve been doing a lot of research in the past six months on a new project. But would a committee think my commitment to academia was strong enough?
This imagined search committee’s doubt about my potential to publish represents an attitude that pervades academia, and it leads to its own line of fears and stresses. In academia, you must always work, work, work, the dominant discourse asserts, so you can secure tenure and never have to work again. The big secret of academia, though, is that most people spend far more time worrying about their work instead of actually doing it. They/you/I fret over every deadline, rue every conference paper, freak out about sending things off to journals. Worry leads to procrastination leads to rushed deadlines leads to more worry.
In short, being an academic is an exercise in perfectionism gone wrong. It isn’t productive. It isn’t helpful. It isn’t sane. Writing fiction has been my way out of this cycle.
Last spring, I started research on a project about feminism and popular music since 1990. I won’t go into it much here, but I love it. The first chapter focuses on Riot Grrrl, nostalgia, and historiography, and I spent a lot of my summer interviewing women about their relationship with feminism and popular music. But my focus on actually writing that chapter kept being interrupted by, well, more research. I didn’t feel like I could sit down and write something deeply analytical until I had some perspective on the material. And because I was finding more research material, getting more interviews, and branching out to more interlocutors than I originally thought (what a problem to have, right?), that day kept getting postponed.
Just in case you think this is another form of procrastination, I have done a lot of work on the actual writing of this chapter recently. But back in October, when I felt overwhelmed by research, I also felt the compulsion to write something else. I needed a break from the intensity of research proposals, book reviews, and conference papers. And so I turned to fiction.
Writing fiction frees up my brain. When I sit down to work on academic prose, I feel the pressure of perfection, as though every paragraph, every sentence, every phrase must emerge fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. I leave myself no room for error. But when I write fiction, I’m OK with the knowledge that I can, should, will have to revise. And that revising is not only OK, but expected. And so I can, and do, write about three times more quickly when I’m writing fiction. Is it any good? Probably not! But I can and will make it better.
I’d forgotten this aspect of fiction writing in my sojourn away from it. But it’s a valuable lesson for an academic to remember. It’s helped me so much over this past semester. When I had to do a series of research proposals over the winter break, I wrote in a much more organized fashion than I’ve experienced in years. It’s still to early to know if they’ll bring me any funding, but the feedback I got from my mentors, who can be blunt and pointed with their critiques, was shockingly positive.
In the end, whatever happens in either my fiction or academic career will happen. But I think that both are mutually beneficial. And for how my academic writing helps my fiction… well, that’s another blog post.